Friday, September 13, 2013

The Ed Tech Challenge: What is this Digital Shift, and How Do We Make it Happen?

I have been working on a technology integration framework and MOOC (massive open online course) for my teachers for the last year with some of the most passionate and intelligent educators I know. The lead design team consists of Chad Kafka, Robert Pronovost, Kelsey Vroomunn, and Caroline Haebig, and the contributors consist of people I've met through the Google Certified Trainer & Teacher programs and through networking. I've spent far more nights and weekends working on this project than I should probably admit (yes, I have a life outside of work), but I've been really inspired by all of the work everyone has put into this project and I feel so lucky that I have had the opportunity to collaborate with all of these smart people!
Visit for more info!

The project we've been working on, the Ed Tech Challenge, is a free technology integration course & framework designed to help a district shift all teachers towards digital age work & personalized learning environments.

The main components of the Ed Tech Challenge are:
  • A technology integration survey that gives teachers an individualized report on their current comfort level with the ISTE-NETS, personalized learning elements, and digital age work.
  • A self-paced course that includes six units of online tutorials (lessons focus on increasing efficiency / effectiveness of teaching practices)
  • A website template for classrooms (districts can link their individual template to the course)
  • A template to create personalized learning plans for educators (again, districts can link their templates to the course)
  • A framework to help a district move towards a shared vision of education technology

By signing up as a district, administrators will have access to the survey tool, the classroom website template, and personalized learning plans for their educators. As of today, only the first two of the six units are completely finished, but our district resources have already been downloaded by 25 districts serving over 125,000 kids.

My district (270 teachers across nine schools) has used elements of the framework to achieve the following:
  • 100% adoption of classroom websites in less than six months
  • 100% adoption of personalized learning plans for educators in less than two months
  • Personalized learning plans for all of the students in our elementary charter school and one of our high school charter schools
  • Consistent student portfolios across our elementary schools and middle school (will be deployed throughout this year)
  • Data that shows a definite increased understanding of personalized learning and education technology- the online tutorials support blended learning workshops for teachers, so teachers are able to experience what it is like to be students in a learner-driven environment

I am so impressed with all of my teachers' hard work this year
, and I am also so lucky that I get to work with an incredibly supportive administration and with a fantastic team of six library media specialists. Two of my LMS's achieved Google Apps Trainer certification last year, the other three returning LMS's are finishing their final test on Monday, and our new LMS came to us with experience teaching graduate classes on Google Apps. These ladies rock!


I made a Prezi that explains the entire project- from conception to completion. I've been using and modifying this Prezi since last January- at school board meetings, local conferences, the Google Apps booth at ISTE, and with all 270+ of my teachers. I'm finally ready to finalize my message (seriously, this is the only Prezi I've ever made- I just keep modifying it!), so I recorded a video of my voice as I talk through it.

This video has four parts, and goes through my experiences with education technology as a new teacher, networker, technology coach, and district administrator. 

I've embedded the full video below, but if you'd prefer to watch it in parts, scroll just a little further down.

One more note: Since posting this, a few people have asked to use this video with their staff for professional development / pre-service teachers for class. No need to ask!!! Feel free to use and share. My only suggestion is to pause after each section for discussion- I didn't do that with some of my first groups, and I regret it. All of the feedback I've received is that the discussions that followed each section were really powerful because people were sharing their personal successes / failures / ideas (which, let's be honest- is way more interesting than just my reflections). Here are some discussion questions you can use after each part...

Link to all four videos:

Learning that Technology is Not a Silver Bullet

Learning How to Ask the Right Questions

Learning How to Become a Productivity Machine

Learning that Change Occurs when People Work Together

Link to transcript (for printing):

PART ONE: 0:00-8:39


Let’s talk about education technology. This... is my story.

A few years ago, I was a brand-new teacher at a high school. I was lucky to have a lot of access to technology for my students, so I quickly started working on making my class completely paperless. I immediately set up my classes in a learning management system, I flipped a lot of my lectures and put videos online, and I had my students interact through classroom blogs and wikis. A few months into teaching, however, something happened. The classroom that I was sharing with another teacher acquired a new decoration. That decoration was a lava lamp.

Within minutes, the lava lamp became the most popular entertainment in the room. No matter what mini-lesson I was covering or what video we were watching, I kept catching my students watching the lava lamp. Some days were worse than others- and one day, in the middle of a lesson that involved watching a video and responding to blog questions, I saw almost a quarter of my class staring at the lava lamp.

I was completely exasperated, and I finally questioned my students- “Seriously- WHAT is so interesting about this lava lamp?”. My students didn’t say anything. At this point, I figured that something had to be going on. I taught high school students- so I assumed the worst. A student had probably taken the device apart and put something inside of the container. That, or the liquids in the container were forming inappropriate shapes. SOMETHING was definitely going on.

“Just tell me,” I pleaded. “I promise you won’t get in trouble, no matter what you say”.

Finally, one student spoke up. “You promise?”

“Yes, I promise. I need you to be honest with me.”

“Okay,” he said. “Uh, it’s not the lava lamp. I’m just really bored”.

WHAT?!?! Oh well- that was just one student. I turned to the rest of my class. “Who else is bored?”

Every student in my class raised their hand.

Then I asked the bigger question -“Do you feel like you’re learning anything?”.

Every student in my class said no.

That was the day that I learned that technology does not engage students. When I took a hard look at what I was doing, I realized that all I had done was take the content I was teaching and make it digital. I was running a lecture-based classroom- and the only difference was that I was able to individualize those lectures a little bit more. Here’s the problem with that model: good teachers do more than just teach content.


I decided that I needed to stop looking at what the media was telling me, and I needed to start looking at the research. I had a lot of great teachers, and they knew how to build personalized, learner-driven environments- BEFORE we had our current technologies. The principles of effective teaching really haven’t changed, and our understanding of pedagogy is built on decades of research.

Technology is NOT pedagogy. Technology is not a learning outcome. It didn’t matter if my students were making blogs or Prezis or videos- what mattered was whether or not they were reaching the learning outcomes. They could raise awareness by writing letters, start conversations by talking, and find answers by looking in a book. The technology was only a means of achieving that outcome- and sometimes, newer technology wasn’t the most effective. If I wanted my students to learn how to write an essay, having them make a video about essay parts was really just a gimmick. The best way to teach my students how to write an essay was to have them actually write an essay. And then when it wasn’t good enough, have them rewrite it. And rewrite it again. And keep rewriting it until it was good enough.

I learned that what really mattered, more than anything else, was those learning outcomes and that summative assessment. Everything else came secondary- the worksheets, the activities, the curriculum- everything was secondary to the learning outcomes.

I also learned that it didn’t matter what that assessment was- a boring essay or presentation could be engaging if it was authentic for students. I learned to build authenticity by providing an A.R.C. of experiences. Students wanted a real Audience outside of just me, the teacher. Students also wanted to create projects that had Relevance- projects that considered their life experiences and mattered outside of a classroom setting. Finally, students wanted Choice- they wanted options and they wanted ownership of their work.

Everything else came after that. Because all of my students came in with different strengths and weaknesses, I couldn’t just give every student the same mini-lesson every day. I had to have every possible intervention ready to go at the start of a unit, because not every student needed the same thing. I needed to be ready to provide every individual student and group of students with the activities or worksheets they needed when they needed them- so I started collecting binders of mini-lessons.

To target those strengths and weaknesses, I learned that I needed to give constant, targeted feedback. If summative assessment was the destination, formative assessment was the car that took us there. My daily lesson plan calendar was taken over by short quizzes, student conferences, peer feedback, and exit slips.

The  final thing I learned was that even though we were focused on that summative assessment, the journey was more important than the destination. What was more important than the final product was the process the student took to get there. I needed my students to view their learning as a continuum, and I needed them to constantly reflect on their learning journey. Even though there are deadlines in the real world, a project is assessed multiple times before it is considered finished. And if isn’t good enough on that deadline, the employer doesn’t give a bad grade and move on- that project is expected to be fixed.


Let’s fast-forward a few years in my story. After being coached by some of the best teachers I knew, I had learned more about building authentic summative assessments. I was doing my best to break down all of the skills students needed and I was doing my best to individualize my instruction to help students get there. I was trying to give as much feedback as I could throughout the process, and I became obsessed with reflections, revisions, and retakes. Essentially, I had learned how to build a learner-driven environment.

And then reality hit.

  • I found out that it didn’t matter what the project was, but every student would be in a different place on that rubric.
  • And every single outcome on that rubric could be broken down into five different mini-lessons.
  • And that rubric was different for every single one of my twenty-five students.
  • And I had twenty-five students in six different classes.
  • And that rubric was for just one project- in a calendar of many, many, projects.

Suddenly, my desk started filling up with ungraded formative assessments. I started drinking caffeine- a lot of caffeine. I fell behind on grading summative assessments. I started consuming even more caffeine- in solid and liquid form. I forgot what daylight looked like. ...and I realized, suddenly, that the best conversation I had in the past week was with the inanimate object on desk.

Building authentic, hands-on experiences for our students is exhausting and personalizing learning for every student is impossible. But we try to do it, every day, our job is more than teaching content. Our job is more than building robots who can spit out facts that can be found in a Google search result. Our job is to build people.  People with persistence and empathy and imagination. And THAT is the real purpose of our profession. It’s not about content. It’s about people.

And sometimes, we’re lucky enough that when we look at our whiteboard at the end of the day, we find a small note of gratitude from our students (which looks very different depending on what grade we teach)- but that little reminder is all we need to remember why it’s all worth it.

PART TWO: 8:40-15:03


So where is the technology?

When we talk about pedagogy and building great experiences for our students, we don’t talk about blogs or Prezis or videos. We talk about learning outcomes. After I learned this- that technology is not a silver bullet and that I actually had to know how to teach to engage my students, I started asking the big question again: “Why should we use technology?:

I had a pretty good network of colleagues, and I found out that I wasn’t the only person asking this question. It didn’t take me long to realize that the smartest person in my network was the network. Together, all of the people in my network provided a collective answer that I could have never formalized on my own.

Here are some of the things that they told me:

  • One person said: “We’ve made collaborating easier by using digital office tools. Our students can build projects together and access their work from anywhere, and our teachers can give feedback on student work throughout the entire process. That access has allowed us to be more effective as an organization. We’re using collaboration tools.
  • Someone else said: “We have an efficient system to share files and resources with students and parents. All of our teachers use websites- parents and students know where to go to find information. We’re using content management systems.
  • Another person said: “I’m using social networks to connect with other educators online. I’m way more effective because I’m finding great resources and ideas from people I can trust. I’m using a personal learning network.
  • Someone else said: “We’re giving faster formative feedback by using digital quizzes. Our teachers don’t take worksheets home to grade anymore. We’re more effective because we can give students feedback in real time- when it matters. We’re using formative response tools.
  • Another person said: “I’m flipping my classroom- but I’m doing it to individualize my instruction. I spend a lot of time helping my students with their projects, and I need a more effective way to direct them to the interventions they need.” I’m using open educational resources.
  • Finally, someone else said: “We’ve found an efficient way to organize and display student work. We’re using website templates. It’s a lot more efficient than trying to compile and track paper binders.” We’re using electronic portfolios.

That’s when it hit me. These teachers were looking at technology as a tool, the same way a business would look at technology. A tool, by definition, is anything used as a means of performing an operation or achieving an end. The only reason a business chooses to use newer technology is if it helps them perform that operation more efficiently or achieve that end more effectively. This can be done through increasing access to data or work, automating menial tasks, and by organizing content in a way that is more streamlined and accessible.

In a classroom, that looks like this:
  • Here’s Scenario #1: A teacher wants to give feedback to students as quickly as possible. He hands out worksheets over a few days, since every student is ready for the quiz at a different time. Each night, the teacher takes home a stack of multiple choice quizzes to grade in front of the TV, and hands them back to students the next day.
  • Here’s Scenario #2: The teacher creates a digital quiz. Because it is online, students can take it when they are ready- whether they are sitting in the classroom or at home. Students receive feedback as soon as they finish the last question, and the teacher downloads a copy of all the scores, broken down by each question.

The reason scenario #2 is better is because the teacher has increased his efficiency- by increasing access to the quiz (so he didn’t have to act as the medium between the students and the work- it was accessible online 24-7), by automating the grading process (so he didn’t have to complete the menial task of circling right and wrong answers), and by organizing the data in a way that was streamlined and accessible (so he could instantly see all of the results and do an item analysis on each question).

The teacher wasn’t using technology because it was “more engaging” for students. The teacher was using technology because it allowed him to be more efficient in giving students feedback. That efficiency probably led to greater effectiveness, because one of the greatest influencers on student achievement is being able to provide timely feedback to students.


So let’s lay it all out there.
If we’re asking ourselves “how do we engage students with technology?”, we’re asking the wrong question. We might as well ask ourselves “how do we engage students with pencils?”.

We saw this before. Great lessons engage students. And technology should only be implemented when it helps us deliver great lessons more efficiently and more effectively.

Here’s the right question to ask:

Is this the best way to get my students to learn this concept?

That’s it. That’s the magic question. It shouldn’t be about the technology; it should be about the learning. And after we ask that, then we can ask ourselves the next two questions:
  • Can I be more effective?
  • Can I be more efficient?

And after all that, THEN we look at the technology that is available to us and consider what can help us be more effective and more efficient.

...and there is a lot of technology that is available to us right now. A LOT. We’re in the middle of a shift right now- a HUGE shift- and it’s about as big as the shift was from using a typewriter to using a computer. Using digital tools and the Internet are not the same as using a computer- and it’s okay if it feels overwhelming: there’s a lot out there.

It’s worth it, though. I don’t know a single person who wants to revert back to the typewriter just like I don’t know a single person who wants to go back manually grading multiple choice quizzes.

PART THREE: 15:04-21:20


Let’s take a look at this digital shift, and how it can increase both our efficiency and effectiveness.

First, let’s break down six of the major tasks that teachers do. Teachers collaborate with others, communicate information, find and share resources, give formative feedback, deliver content, and facilitate student inquiry.

Now, let’s look at the digital tools we have available to us.

  • Collaboration Tools help us collaborate with others by giving us 24-7 access to our work, our students' work, and our colleagues work.
  • A Content Management System helps us by giving us a place to easily communicate information and resources with students and parents
  • A Personal Learning Network helps us find and share resources by providing us with relevant information and collaboration opportunities
  • Formative Response Tools help us give formative feedback faster by automating and organizing our assessment process
  • Open Educational Resources support individualized instruction by helping us deliver content.
  • Electronic Portfolios help us facilitate student inquiry by giving students a place to organize their goals, research, artifacts, and reflections.

Let’s break it down even further. How do each of these digital tools specifically work?


Let’s say a teacher wants her students to collaborate with others on a project. The students type a document one computer and then print or email it to all of their group members.  Someone gives feedback, and then the document is revisited. Because it takes so long to move copies around, a lot of time can pass between when a document is written and when a student receives feedback. For group projects, that also means a lot of coordination and making sure that everyone has the right version- and that they remembered to bring the file home with them to work on.

There’s an easier way. Collaboration tools, like Google Docs, live in the cloud -or, the Internet. That means that a document exists completely online, sort of like a web page. For students, that means they can access their work from any device with an Internet connection- on their school laptop, their home computer, or on their mobile phone. Additionally, the document is shared so that multiple people can work on it at the same time. That means that groups projects no longer require coordinating schedules, and teachers can track the entire project from conception to completion.


Now that these students are working on their project, the teacher wants to communicate information about the project to her students and parents. Before, the teacher had to coordinate ways to get that information home. Often, that meant scattered notes across whiteboards, homework agendas, and newsletters.

The easier way is to build a content management system, or, a website. By creating an online repository to put class work, the teacher no longer has to worry about coordinating the movement of information. Instead, parents and students can have 24-7 access to what they need- from a homework calendar, to announcements, to even downloading files and resources for class.


The project is going well, but the teacher wants to find more resources for her students. She looks online, but becomes overwhelmed with all of the information available.

Someone suggests that she start building a  personal learning network so resources are vetted by other educators. She creates an account on a social network and starts following other educators online. Instead of trying to wade through search results, she now has a funnel to sort and filter quality content.


The project is about halfway finished, and the teacher realizes that her students aren’t getting formative feedback fast enough. She’s doing her best to guide student understanding through quizzes, conferences, and exit slips, but she can’t keep up with the grading.

Another teacher shows her how to track student progress through formative response tools. Within a day, her students are taking quizzes online and receiving instant feedback. The teacher no longer has to waste her time taking quizzes home- instead, she has an instant snapshot of the levels that each of her students are at.


After the teacher has given a few quizzes, she realizes that all of her students need different instruction. However, there isn’t much she can do- there’s only one of her, and twenty-five students. She does her best to deliver content on an individual level, but she only has the capacity to address the most common issues.

Her department works together to create a digital bin, or website, of open educational resources. These are content-specific resources that are available online- such as videos, games, websites, and so on. The teacher helps organize all of the curated resources in an easy place for students to access- so on a daily basis, she can direct her students to the instruction they need when they need it.


Finally, the
student inquiry project is coming to completion. When it comes time for the final assessment, the student struggles to compile all of the research, the planning, the artifacts, and the reflections into an organized binder. The teacher receives a folder of student work- but many pieces are incomplete or missing.

The teacher decides to build an electronic portfolio for the next project instead. She uses a website template and creates a few pages- one page for students to state their goals, one page for students to compile their research, one page for students to collect their thoughts, one page for students to link their final artifacts, and one page for students to reflect on their work. The organization of the portfolio makes it easier for the student to stay focused on each piece of the project. Because the portfolio is digital, the teacher is able to access and track the students’ work throughout the entire project.


The teacher started with a great lesson- now, she just has more access to student work, has automated a lot of her manual tasks, and has better organization.

PART FOUR: 21:20-29:58


Digital tools, when used to streamline our tasks, can increase our efficiency- and in doing so, can increase our effectiveness. This shift is clearly better, but changing an organization is really difficult. How do we make this happen?

First, we need to get rid of this stigma that technology is only for some people- “innovators” or  “digital natives” or “charter schools”. Productivity and efficiency is for EVERYONE- and technology belongs in every classroom.  And if someone isn’t ready to change,, it’s because we either haven’t given that person a good enough reason to change or we haven’t provided the conditions for that change to occur.

And that point brings me to the final part of my story.

After a few years of teaching, I switched my focus from teaching students to teaching adults. What I realized was that there were a lot of people, all over the world, who were trying to help teachers navigate this digital shift. In fact, there was a person in my job role in almost every district- and every one of us was trying to support our teachers in the exact same way… and yet, we weren’t working together.

That didn’t make any sense, so we decided to join forces and collaborate on a project together.

The first thing we did was determine our goal- and what we really wanted was to create specific, targeted, professional development focused on improving efficiency and effectiveness. We didn’t want our teachers to use technology as a gimmick- we wanted our teachers to focus on best practices of teaching and learning, and we wanted technology to support that.

So we broke down those six major tasks that teachers do, and we turned them into lessons. We took each concept and broke it down into small steps, so that our teachers could start moving towards digital work.


The next thing we did was put all of those lessons online so that we could support our teachers with hands-on workshops and anytime learning. We made a website, and we used it to house our massive open online course. We put all of the tutorials online, and we structured it in a way so that teachers could go through the curriculum at their own pace.

Then, we started supporting our teachers with hands-on workshops. All of the data shows that blended learning is more effective than face-to-face or virtual instruction alone- and we know that, because it’s easier to individualize instruction when have digital tools to support us. Our teachers aren’t any different than our students- they are all learners, and they all learn the most in a learner-driven environment.


Next, we realized that our teachers didn’t have a starting point. They were all coming in with different technical and pedagogical strengths, and they needed an assessment that would show them where to focus their efforts. So, we tied the framework for the course into the ISTE Standards and had teachers self-assess their place on a continuum.

The ISTE Standards - or the NETS- are the National Educational Technology Standards provided by ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education. We decided to use these standards a starting point with our teachers, so we created a survey off of the standards. The survey was 60 questions long, with three questions that related to each of the 20 performance indicators.

After teachers took their surveys, we took all of the data and added some formulas in. Each question on the survey related to a few other concepts, so we averaged all of the teachers’ responses for each of those concepts. That average helped us calculate results for each teacher- and each teacher received an individualized survey report.

The first part of that report showed teachers their comfort level with personalized learning elements and with the NETS. We made sure to stress that this wasn’t a valid or reliable survey - it couldn’t be, because it was based on a teacher’s self-reflection on a random day when the teacher was in a random mindset. Depending on what a teacher taught, the questions might not have even be wholly applicable. The purpose of the survey was not evaluation- it was reflection, and the survey results did nothing more than that.

The second part of the report gave suggestions for professional development based on the survey results. Those professional development suggestions tied directly into the course that we built- so teachers could immediately set goals and work on whatever skills they deemed most valuable.

This survey allowed us to reach every educator and provide both a starting point and suggestions for how to navigate the digital shift.


Finally, we realized that we needed to redefine professional development, and create personalized learning opportunities for ALL learners.

What did that mean?

Well, we were preaching the importance of personalized learning for students but we were turning around and telling teachers that
their learning only counted if they were sitting in the traditional four walls of classroom.

Take the second unit of our course- “Content Management Systems”. Some teachers built their websites in two hours. Other teachers built their websites in six hours. Some teachers requested one-on-one coaching, while other teachers preferred to watch the video tutorials at home. When all was said and done, 100% of the teachers in my district built websites- but almost 0% built their entire website at a district-sponsored workshop alone.

Did that mean that the teachers who worked on their website from home didn’t deserve credit for the work they put in? Was their work any less significant because they watched a tutorial online instead of in person?

We needed to redefine our professional development so that it reflected learning rather than credit hours-, so we redefined it as “anything that develops you as a professional”. We built the same portfolio for our teachers that we built for our students- and we gave teachers a place to self-track, record, and focus their professional development through reflections and goal setting.

Child or adult, all of our learners deserve the same opportunities.


I’d love to say that this was enough to make change happen, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough to provide professional development for our teachers, because when it came down to it, our teachers were only a small part of a much larger system.

I was lucky- when I taught, every one of my students had a computer, every single day. Imagine telling your students “well, we have paper and pencil available for check out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but only in the mornings, and then again on Fridays. Oh, and a few of the pencils will be broken and we’re a little short on paper- so you’ll have to share.” That’s not an effective tool!

Ongoing professional learning is only one small piece of a much larger picture. Among other things, schools also need equitable access, technical support, consistent and adequate funding, and a shared vision.

So in the end, this isn’t just a story about collaboration between a few educators. This is a story about collaboration within an entire organization.

This is a story about a curriculum department collaborating with instructional coaches to define best teaching and learning practices.

This is a story about instructional coaches collaborating with school leaders to set expectations of digital age work.

This is a story about school leaders collaborating with a technology department to provide aligned device and policy support.

Finally, this is an ongoing story about school leaders collaborating with an entire organization to create the tipping points necessary to create real change.


This is just one story in a much larger narrative that we all share. All of our schools have a challenge, and all of us are a part of this digital shift. On an individual level, what can we do?

Well to start, we can focus on building great lessons- for ALL of our learners.

We can share and learn from each other- because we are smarter when we work together.

We can and we should find ways that technology increases our efficiency and effectiveness.

And finally, we can work together within our organizations to create systemic change.

And that is our Ed Tech Challenge.

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